Last month’s Arab Media Forum, at Dubai’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, unsurprisingly dedicated a fair bit of time to the remarkable effects of the Arab Spring, and the media’s role in it.
No surprises there - the events since late 2010 when Tunisia set the ball rolling for an unprecedented wave of popular revolution across the region were hardly the sort of thing you see every day, but its certainly worth stopping for a moment to question exactly what the role of the media, and particularly the broadcast news media, was in the chain of historic events.
With the rate at which governments were banning journalists, cameras and entire channels from within their borders, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Al Jazeera team had turned up George Orwell-like, fully tooled up and ready to write their very own Homage to Catalonia in the blood of their foes.
Obviously not the case as far as this observer could see, but certain governments seem to have overlooked that reality, as Faris Couri, editor-in-chief, BBC Arabic noted: “Arab TV channels and reporters are faced with several considerable challenges in reporting unbiased content and news for their viewers. Some of the stations are shut down by governments; some even have their reporters expelled.
But despite all the challenges and obstacles, one must find a way to report the news as and how they happen. As one of the Arab TV Channels operating in the region, we try to draw a clear picture of the revolution and major events for our viewers, getting them as close as possible to the event, without having any third party or government affect the end picture. We are an unbiased entity and operate as one.”
The question of governments shutting channels down was one which surely perplexed Nakhle Al Hage, director of news and current affairs, Al Arabiya News Channel, who commented: “Television stations are given far more credit in promoting or even affecting the Arab Spring, when in reality, they lack such power.
Arab media was never responsible for the start of the Arab Spring; it just relayed the news as it is to the viewers who have the right to know what’s happening around them.”
It’s a fair point. The idea that a TV station can affect public opinion to such a degree that it could actually foment a revolution seems to be stretching the boundaries somewhat.
Indeed, a look around at the host of despots who have tried to exercise complete control over TV and culture, and still failed to hold on to power (some of them included among the recent crop of regional evictees) would suggest the public is able to form opinions regardless of a compliant media, and presumably equally independently of a seditious one.
At least as far back as Shakespeare content creators have known that their role is to ‘hold a mirror up to nature’, not to create that nature – or in more modern news terminology to report the facts, not to be the cause of them.
Today more than ever, as the likes of Twitter and mobile filming give the public greater ability to be the creator, editor and broadcaster of its own news, it would perhaps be in certain government’s interests to be more welcoming to the traditional carriers of news.
A protesting citizen seems unlikely to give the most balanced of views, but that is where broadcasters now turn in the absence of their own access. As Alexander Nazarov, director at Russia (a country with a fair experience of media restrictions in its own right) Al Yaum News Channel, observed: “Sometimes, when banned out of certain places, we are only left with witnesses to base our reporting on.”
Chris Newbould is editor of Digital Studio magazine at ITP Business Publishing.